Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy
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Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy

Nicolas Fernandez-Medina, Maria Truglio, Nicolas Fernandez-Medina, Maria Truglio

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Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy

Nicolas Fernandez-Medina, Maria Truglio, Nicolas Fernandez-Medina, Maria Truglio

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This interdisciplinary volume interrogates bodily thinking in avant-garde texts from Spain and Italy during the early twentieth century and their relevance to larger modernist preoccupations with corporeality. It examines the innovative ways Spanish and Italian avant-gardists explored the body as a locus for various aesthetic and sociopolitical considerations and practices. In reimagining the nexus points where the embodied self and world intersect, the texts surveyed in this book not only shed light on issues such as authority, desire, fetishism, gender, patriarchy, politics, religion, sexuality, subjectivity, violence, and war during a period of unprecedented change, but also explore the complexities of aesthetic and epistemic rupture (and continuity) within Spanish and Italian modernisms. Building on contemporary scholarship in Modernist Studies and avant-garde criticism, this volume brings to light numerous cross-cultural touch points between Spain and Italy, and challenges the center/periphery frameworks of European cultural modernism. In linking disciplines, genres, —isms, and geographical spheres, the book provides new lenses through which to explore the narratives of modernist corporeality. Each contribution centers around the question of the body as it was actively being debated through the medium of poetic, literary, and artistic exchange, exploring the body in its materiality and form, in its sociopolitical representation, relation to Self, cultural formation, spatiality, desires, objectification, commercialization, and aesthetic functions. This comparative approach to Spanish and Italian avant-gardism offers readers an expanded view of the intersections of body and text, broadening the conversation in the larger fields of cultural modernism, European Avant-garde Studies, and Comparative Literature.

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Part I
The Fragmented Body

1 A Return to the Body: On Fetishism and the Inscrutable Feminine in Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s Senos

Nicolás Fernández-Medina
Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.
Proverbs 5:19
I spit on the fools who fail to include
Breasts in their metaphysics,
Star-gazers who have not enumerated them
Among the moons of the earth…
Charles Simic, “Breasts” (28)
In his manifesto “The Concept of the New Literature” of 1909, Ramón Gómez de la Serna affirmed that literature, as an art form, had lost much of its authority and relevance throughout the nineteenth century and had entered the twentieth century in a sorry state of decline. The irony of it all was that in the great age of emancipative progress and modernization, it had been reduced to an insipid, commonsensical, ethically oriented, and commercial enterprise in which the richness of lived experience was incapable of instigating real change in society. Most troubling, it no longer engaged with the irrationality of the erotic or probed the liberating possibilities of sexual transgression. Ultimately, the craft of literature had effaced the body, pure and simple. With a final cry of protest, Gómez de la Serna declared: “There is no STATE OF BODY [in literature]. All of literature is made up of an ethical, logical, canonical, and insufferable repose” (Obras 159).1
What Gómez de la Serna sought to address in his manifesto was the idea that “new” literature, if it was to meet the challenges of the modern age, had to realize a bodily aesthetic. The complicity between the literary and corporeal during a period of technological, scientific, and mechanical revolution required a radical rethinking, Gómez de la Serna claimed, and there is no doubt that the explosion of erotica and sexual pseudo-science in the early twentieth century across Europe spoke to the shifting boundaries that circumscribed the body/world dynamic. F. T. Marinetti, one of Gómez de la Serna’s early mentors, was explicit on this point: “One must imitate the movements of the machine … thereby preparing the fusion of man with the machine” (138). While Gómez de la Serna disagreed with Marinetti on several issues (his unapologetic misogyny, for instance), he nevertheless agreed with him that a critical appreciation of the body was problematic in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy stifled by religion and the rituals of repression that Sigmund Freud had documented in his early essay “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.”2 In the end, everyday modern life immersed the individual in a progressively untidy and shrinking world, a world of technological innovation, industrial production, urbanism, and consumerism, where writing the body and self became not only a challenge, but also a dilemma.
In this chapter, I examine how Gómez de la Serna realized the bodily aesthetic he outlined in his manifesto. This aesthetic is present in many forms in his oeuvre, yet I will focus on his concept of the erotic as it was articulated in a fetishism of the female other. As a survey of his extensive literary production reveals, the desiring male body that is subject to all manner of taboos, rules, laws, and social mores has always occupied a privileged place in his thinking. Given the autobiographical bent of his work, the desiring male body presented in the text is his in many cases: a body in transit that is continually reinventing itself through a flaneuristic exploration of the urban landscape and its wealth of meanings. There is perhaps no better work than Senos [Breasts] (1917) to determine how Gómez de la Serna heeded what he liked to call his sensualidad and advanced the bodily aesthetic that he prophesized would recorporealize vanguard literature. In the introductory pages of Breasts, he stresses the experience of otherness and the facticity of being that ground his erotic sensibility and the fetishism described in the text. The possibility of touching the other, of immersing oneself fully in a tactile realm, informs his examination of the desired body through an obsessive theme: the marvel of breasts. He explains:
The initial confusion and trembling that comes with grasping what belongs to the other, perfectly to the other, to a being with its own life, to a being whose unbridgeable separation cannot be corrected, cured, or resolved by the opposite sex; and it is this confusion and trembling that traverses this work, it is what is constantly inserted in the lines of this book and what imbues a certain embarrassment to its words, the type of embarrassment and rapture that one feels when cradling new breasts for the first time. … Like a marksmen shooting at a target, I take aim in this book at the most central target of breasts. (9)3
While Cabañas Alamán and López Criado have demonstrated to what degree Gómez de la Serna’s novelistic production examined the erotic through the veils of perversion and even existential phenomenology, scant attention has been paid to more eccentric texts like Breasts that explore what José Ortega y Gasset once called “the lowly neighborhoods of our attention” (47).4 The most complete 1923 edition is composed of 131 titled fragments, each documenting types of breasts, while under the section “Variations and Observations” that comprises the final third of the book there are approximately 150 more reflections, accounts, descriptions, and analyses of breasts including several greguerías.5 What makes Breasts so compelling in terms of the body and textuality is that we find on display the period’s evolving perceptions of femininity and female sexuality (and perhaps for this reason alone the book was considered too risqué and prohibited in Franco’s Spain).6 Let there be no mistake: these perceptions are emblematic of the sexist and phallocentric gaze of patriarchal authority, yet they are more sophisticated and critically attentive than first meets the eye. Under Gómez de la Serna’s pen, they also disclose the ironic tensions at the heart of the cultural practices that inscribe meaning onto the body in a modernizing Spain. As we shall see, while he explores the power of fetishism and deploys the patriarchal mechanisms of objectification that dehumanize the female other, he also pushes the boundaries of the erotically acceptable forward, interrogates notions of femininity, problematizes long-held views about desire and gendered subjectivity, and dares a new, mass readership to take stock of the various forms of sexual fantasy it is blissfully consuming. The double-edged phenomenon of making the risqué and taboo familiar illustrates to what extent the Spanish avant-garde tackled the shifting sands of gender and sexuality during this period of uneven modernization. As Spires aptly put it, male-authored vanguard texts like Breasts project “female representations that [could] be considered both seditiously threatening and stereotypically comforting to a virile discursive tradition” (206).
It is important to keep in mind that Breasts also provides a record of how Gómez de la Serna was responding to the modernist preoccupation with corporeality, sexuality, health, hygiene, and vitalist notions of identity that were in the air in the early twentieth century. Already in Morbideces [Morbidities] of 1908—Gómez de la Serna’s first autobiography penned in his late teens—he laments that his early literary works were mired in a conflict with the conventional bourgeois sensibilities of his age when it came to the body and desire.7 If he could only unleash his libido and deviant aggression in his literature, he muses in Morbideces, then he would be able to satisfy his desires and soar to new literary heights. He summed up his thoughts in Mis siete palabras [My Seven Words] (1910) stating: “Within us, given that all insanities could exist, we have, nevertheless, filled up on common sense. … The time has come to dress ourselves anew and pursue our penitentiary vices” (Obras 183–89). In many respects, Breasts is a product of Gómez de la Serna’s reenergized pursuit of “penitentiary vices” beyond the frontier of common sense.

The Sphinxian Riddle: Fetishism, Repression, and Nipple Shields

To appreciate Gómez de la Serna’s treatment of the female other in Breasts, we must begin by acknowledging the fetishism that it explores. The concept of the fetish has always referred to the inexplicable and almost mystical power and value that individuals attribute to material objects within a given social framework (Pietz 13). Karl Marx theorized fetishism in Capital and noted the “peculiar social character” that objects acquired through the complex processes of commodities production (65). He conjectured that there existed a “fantastic form” of exchange that governed the circulation of certain objects, and he believed that the relation among these circulating objects raised the specter of “the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” (64). The concept of the fetish acquired new socioeconomic meanings throughout the late nineteenth century, and by 1906 the anthropologist and ethnologist Cort Haddon lamented that “the word Fetishism has been so misused of late. … It has been stretched to such an extent in various directions that it has lost the definition and precision necessary for a scientific term” (64). Needless to say, Freud expanded the concept further. By developing Valentin Magnan’s, Alferd Binet’s, and Jean-Martin Charcot’s theories on sexuality and perversion, he imbued the concept with its psychoanalytic implications in his well-known study “Fetishism,” where he argued that the fetish-object served as a substitute for the maternal penis. In brief, the little boy, and future fetishist, is overcome with a fear of castration when he learns that his mother in fact has no penis. The fear of castration, and the subsequent processes of disavowal to accept such a physical loss, conspire in him to construct a substitute phallus in the fetish-object, which not only produces sexual arousal and gratification, but also transforms into “a token of triumph over the threat of castration and protection against it” (“Fetishism” 206). In the normal process of psychosexual development, according to Freud, the boy would overcome his fear of castration, acknowledge his mother’s bodily lack, and identify with his father.
The Freudian lens brings to the fore the acute repression and overvaluation that are employed in endowing the fetish-object with its erotic potency. One of the key points Freud underscored is that the fetish-object concretized an originary trauma during psychosexual development in which fear, repression, substitution, and the image of the castrated mother converge. While Gómez de la Serna does not use the word fetish, he readily admits that the signifying system of Breasts depends upon a powerful and “excessive delight” for a particular body part of the opposite sex (Senos 8). “I have collected,” he declares, “the fantasies that [breasts] suggest” (Senos 8). He elaborates on these fantasies alluding to the Sphinx of classical Greek mythology that was believed to be an eagle-winged monster with the head and breasts of a woman and the body of a lion. The Sphinx was depicted as a menacing monster, a femme fatale, and a voracious man-eater that Oedipus vanquished when he deciphered her riddle. For Gómez de la Serna, “[t]he most Sphinxian aspect of the Sphinx is not its smile, eyes, or forehead, but rather, its breasts, where the secret of matter is coalesced in an inimitable form” (Senos 10). Like Gómez de la Serna, Freud was fascinated by the riddle of the Sphinx, which he associated with man’s trauma and repression when it came to accepting the idea that the true origin of his psychic life could be found in femininity. Not surprisingly, the riddle of the Sphinx for Freud was always tethered to the oedipal question: “Where do babies come from?” (Three 56). It would be fair to say that Breasts aspires to solve this Sphinxian riddle through an epistemology of fetishism, as it were, in which the repressed truth of the female other is uncovered in a paradoxical “squaring of breasts” (Senos 7).8 Indeed, Gómez de la Serna makes a point of both exploring and making present in the fetish-object the desire, anxiety, prohibition, animus, and threat associated with the female body, which was indeed becoming more visible in various sociopolitical spheres at the end of the First World War.
The Sphinxian riddle of breasts, as Gómez de la Serna liked to think of it, calls attention to the complexities of the oedipal stage and the nostalgia for the phallic mother, a figure related to the pre-trauma stage of psychosexual development characterized by nurturing and plenitude. With a critical eye towards the ideology of domesticity, Marcia Ian explains how the phallic mother figure that has haunted psychoanalytic theory amounts to a “conflation, compaction, and concretion of all the most primitive fears and desires of hegemonic heterosexist white bourgeois patriarchy (i.e., home sweet home)” (7). The earliest oral stage in Freud’s schema of psychosexual development is logically associated with breasts, given that the infant is focused on oral pleasures, and yet the essential features of the sexual impulse are already present: “He who sees a satiated child sink back from the mother’s breast, and fall asleep with reddened cheeks and blissful smile, will have to admit that this picture remains as typical of the expression of sexual gratification in later life” (Three 44). For Freud, the fetish-object is not chosen indiscriminately, and he surmised that it gained its symbolic power during the pre-trauma moment at the onset of the oedipal stage when the mother could still be regarded as phallic. Feet and shoes, he proposed, were often transformed into fetish-objects since they related to those particular events when “the inquisitive boy used to peer up the woman’s legs towards her genitals.” Likewise, “velvet and fur reproduce … the sight of pubic hair which ought to have revealed the longed-for penis” (“Fetishism” 207).
In Automoribundia (1948), Gómez de la Serna’s most extensive autobiography, he records an early childhood memory that may shed some light on the oedipal anxiety we find associated with breasts and the mother figure in Breasts. The memory involves the discovery of his mother’s pezoneras, or nipple shields, in a nightstand in his parent’s bedroom:
The child discovered things. … With a slight trepidation, he also discovered his parents’ bedroom and he sensed it was full of life, yet he could also feel the shade of something else that he didn’t know was death. When he opened the nightstand drawer he revealed two nipple shields, and in a painting depicting Pius X he learned that the X was a sign of the unknown.
—Are you there, mother? (35)9
As Gómez de la Serna remembers it, the discovery of the pezoneras is shrouded in mystery and precipitates a realization of his mother’s sexuality, which produces a conflicting response of pleasure (Eros, or the life instinct of the libido: “slight trepidation,” “full of life”) and pain (Thanatos, the death instinct of aggression and destruction: “something else,” “death”). This discovery brings into immediate view the patriarchal religious values (the right/wrong and good/bad of morality) that are identified with the paternal image of Pope Pius X that hangs in...

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Citation styles for Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy
APA 6 Citation
Fernandez-Medina, N., & Truglio, M. (2016). Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Fernandez-Medina, Nicolas, and Maria Truglio. (2016) 2016. Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Fernandez-Medina, N. and Truglio, M. (2016) Modernism and the Avant-garde Body in Spain and Italy. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Fernandez-Medina, Nicolas, and Maria Truglio. Modernism and the Avant-Garde Body in Spain and Italy. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.